My wife, as usual, cooked a glorious Rosh H'Shanah meal. There was tsimmes, a stew of sweet potatoes, prunes, apples and other fruit. There was potato kugel, there was a pizza-sized round challah bread, there was chicken soup with matzo balls, and of course, there was a brisket.
Even though there were just seven of us for dinner, the chosen brisket was of gargantuan size. It was easily as large as a manhole cover or the lid of an industrial garbage pail. In fact, I am sure that though I assiduously try to avoid eating red meat, I will be having brisket leftovers well into October.
Uncle Slappy, naturally, presided over the meal. With a different accent and maybe a beret, you might be inclined to call Uncle Slappy a raconteur. However, given that he was born over 85 years ago on the Lower East Side of Manhattan when that area was the province of Eastern European Jews, we call Uncle Slappy a "tummler." In Yiddish tummler means "racket" but in the old Borscht Belt hotels of the Catskills, a tummler was someone who mixed it up with guests, someone who got people laughing, someone who got the party started.
That's Uncle Slappy. The very model of a modern tummler.
"Did I ever tell you," Uncle Slappy began "of the multiplying brisket?"
Aunt Sylvie and my wife got up immediately from the table. Surely there was something more pressing that needed attending to in the kitchen. But Uncle Slappy was undaunted.
"It happened over 100 years ago, back in the old country. Miriam had pinched her kopecks all year and saved up for the biggest, the grandest, the fattest brisket the shtetl had ever seen. This was more than just a slab of cattle. It was a gift from god, a masterpiece.
"For days and nights she prepared the brisket. Seasoning, peppering, salting and tenderizing. Miriam did everything. She made the tsimmes, she made the kugel, she baked the challah. And finally, just a day before Rosh H'Shanah, she lovingly placed the single brisket in the oven.
"Now Miriam was superstitious. Spill salt...throw salt over your shoulder. Little household superstitions that so many people believed back a century ago. And one of Miriam's superstitions was not checking on things while she was cooking them. Especially a tour de force like this heaven-sent brisket.
"Five hours passed and the sun was about to set and finally Miriam had to check on the meat. She opened up the oven and mysteriously there was no longer just one gazunta brisket in the oven...there were two!"
"A multiplying brisket," I interrupted.
"Miriam her eyes couldn't believe. She opened the oven again and there weren't two briskets there any longer. Now there were four!
"You can imagine, this is a family that was so poor they ate a chicken only when they were sick or the bird was. And now they had four briskets.
"But wait, now the heavy iron door of the over was pushing open. Miriam counted quickly...eight briskets! 16! 32! They were spilling into her cramped kitchen. She screamed for Moshe her husband to come. Someone had put the evil eye on their brisket.
"Moshe arrived and tried to beat the briskets back with an old straw broom. But soon there were more. 64 briskets! 128 briskets.
"'Go, Yitzhak' he said to his oldest son. 'Go get the Rabbi. He will know what to do.' The Rabbi arrived and was stupefied. There were 256 briskets! 512! The entire little hovel of Miriam and Moshe and their four children was filled with briskets. They were breaking through the windows and their flimsy front door."
Aunt Sylvie came in with a cup of coffee. "Ach," she said, "he is telling the multiplying brisket story again?"
"Sylvie, quiet" Uncle Slappy spat, "I'm telling a story."
"Some story," she said. "Feh."
Uncle Slappy sped ahead, undeterred by the cynicism of his wife of 55 years.
"Now the whole village became aware of the brisket phenomenon. They were rushing to Miriam's hovel with soup pots and platters. Hoping to take away a magical multiplying brisket.
"But here's what happened. As soon as someone touched a brisket to take home, they started UN-multiplying. 1024 briskets to 512, to 256, to 128, to 64.
"In just seconds, the commotion was over and Miriam and Moshe and their four children were down to the single brisket they started with. The town and the brisket had returned to what you would call normalcy.
"So with nothing else to eat they all sat down to their Rosh H'Shanah meal. Moshe carved the brisket and took the first delicious bite.
"'Needs salt,' was all he said."
With that Slappy left the table, went into the kitchen and grabbed off the meat platter a tiny schtickle of meat.
"Needs salt," was all he said.